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Fan Focus: San Antonio podcaster Royce gives us the lowdown on the USL Championship champions!

Ahead of the first of Sunderland’s three games in America, we spoke to San Antonio fan Royce Alvarez of the San Antonio Fancast to learn more about their team! Which players should we look out for?

Matthew Crichton: Sunderland have not travelled to America for pre-season since 2015, what was the reaction amongst your fanbase when the friendly was announced?

Royce Alvarez: When the friendly was announced, the San Antonio FC fan base was ecstatic. We normally have friendlies with Liga MX (Mexican first division) teams, and those are always a solid draw.

We’ve had one friendly against another EFL Championship side which was Cardiff City in 2019, in which we lost 1-0 on a converted penalty. This should be a sold-out match (Toyota Field holds about 8500 people) so it should be a great atmosphere.

MC: San Antonio are the reigning champions of the division below the MLS. From an English perspective, it would feel strange to still be playing in the same division the season after - what are your thoughts on promotion and relegation?

RA: Most fans of USL Championship teams dream of an open system in USSF. The drama and passion that is derived from promotion/relegation is something we can only experience through our screens.

USL is actually due to take a vote amongst its owners on August 10th to implement promotion/relegation among the 3 USL leagues in hopes of their top-tier league being recognized as a first-division league with FIFA, which could mean more sponsorship money as well as other benefits to the league.

MLS will never be open to an open system, as it’s a single-entity league (each team is controlled by the league and each “owner” is really just an investor), much like what the owners of certain European teams tried to establish with the “UEFA Super League” a few years ago.

San Antonio is a uniquely affected city by MLS as they were all but promised an MLS franchise, even having a press conference about it, but the league instead allowed an owner of an established team to move the team to Austin, Texas (about 150 KM north of San Antonio), which in turn MLS decided not to award San Antonio with a team due to proximity.

Austin FC is very much hated amongst the San Antonio FC community along similar lines to Wimbledon and MK Dons.

We are in fact the reigning USL Championship Champions, and we defeated Austin FC last season in a US Open Cup match as well, which had some truly special meaning and catharsis for the entire San Antonio FC fan base.

Pachuca v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
Sunderland’s last match in America resulted in a 3-1 defeat to Mexican side Pachuca, with Jack Rodwell scoring for the lads.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

MC: Your club is managed by Canadian Alen Marcina, what can you tell us about his style of play?

RA: Marcina ball! He implements a high pressing 343 or a 352. Centerbacks will distribute early and often to our forwards. If we lose the ball, then our midfielders deny space and passing lanes while our forwards and wingbacks counterpress the opposition into oblivion.

This is actually Alen Marcina’s second tenure as a manager of a second-division team in San Antonio. He was the manager for the San Antonio Scorpions (NASL) in 2013-2015. The Scorpions won the league title in 2014, so 2022 was his second title-winning campaign in San Antonio.

MC: San Antonio just beat El Paso 2-1 in a top of the table clash, I’m guessing the mood amongst your squad and fans is great right now?

RA: Every season around this time we start really putting things together, and this season is no exception.

SAFC finds itself on a 3-match winning streak and at the top of the table tied with Sacramento Republic.

At the very end of the last match against El Paso, there was a melee on the field instigated by an El Paso player kicking out at an SAFC player, so team unity is also at a high going into this match.

MC: Your current top scorer is Nigerian striker Tani Olywaseyi, what makes him so clinical in front of goal?

RA: Tani is an incredible talent. He’s not just a fox in the box, but he creates his own chances by dribbling at defenders and finishing clinically. He’s physical, he’s quick, and he’s clever. Truly the full package.

MC: Aside from Olywaseyi, which San Antonio players will Sunderland have to be wary of?

RA: We have a 19-year-old midfielder Rida Zouhir that’s a great talent. He and Tani are both on loan from MLS squads.

Jorge Hernandez transferred to San Antonio this offseason from KV Mechelen from the Belgium first division. He’s a great distributor as well as a top dribbler.

On the other side of the ball, we have the reigning Defender of the year as well as the goalkeeper of the year in Mitchell Taintor and Jordan Farr respectively. They’re both incredible human beings and solid players to boot.

Bolivia v United States
Lynden Gooch earned four caps for USA during 2016-2018, before falling out of favour when Sunderland were relegated to League One.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

MC: I imagine changes are likely being a friendly, but which 11 players do you think Marcina will select?

RA: We have a week’s worth of rest after this match, and a lot of our squad is returning from the injury list, so I’d imagine the squad wouldn’t be rotated too heavily.

I think it’ll be Farr, Batista, Garcia, Taintor, Bailey, Jome, Hayes, Zouhir, Hernandez, Dhillon, and Oluwaseyi.

MC: In terms of climate, when I checked the weather forecast there was an excessive heat warning, how hot do you think it will be on Sunday?

RA: This is San Antonio in July, it’s always hot. It’s currently 41°, with a heat index of 43°. It won’t be “Not hot” when November comes around.

MC: What is one fun fact about San Antonio FC that Sunderland fans won’t know?

RA: We’re only 8 seasons old, so we have a while to catch up to you guys at 144 years. As far as fun facts, I think a somewhat funny fact is that our unofficial mascot is “El Gato Blanco” or “The White Cat”.

During a match last season during our championship run, a stray white cat emerged from somewhere in the stadium onto the pitch, and the rest was history. So this match will not only be SAFC vs SAFC, but it will also be The Black Cats vs The White Cats.

One last fact is that San Antonio FC is owned and operated by the Spurs Sports and Entertainment, who also owns and runs The San Antonio Spurs.

MC: The last time Sunderland faced a team from your division, they were defeated 1-0 by Sacramento - what is your prediction for the final score?

RA: 2-1 SAFC (San Antonio FC). Jobe Bellingham will score for Sunderland, and Tani Oluwaseyi and Nacho Bailone (off the bench) will score for San Antonio.


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